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Discourse on Method Essay

Are there any identical restrictions on the ways in which human beings may use and treat nonhuman animals? If so, what are they and how are they considered morally justified? In this philosophical enterprise, I will first review three standard responses to these questions and briefly indicate why none of them is entirely satisfactory. Afterwards, I will elucidate what axioms should be adopted as the kernel of truth in each of three responses, and finally juxtapose them into the fourth axiom, which is more adequate position.

In so doing, I will argue the importance, from an ethical point of view, of further inquiry into the nature and extent of consciousness in nonhuman animals. Historically, Western philosophers have established three postulates explaining the validity of using and treating nonhuman animals in experiment disregarding the questions about its nature and its extent of ethical restrictions. One, they argue on the basis of our indirect obligation to animals maintaining that act of expending animals for different experiments is only impermissible if and only if we have a direct obligation.

Two, humans do not have any obligation to animals, and given this fact humans can do whatever they want with animals. And lastly, direct obligation posits that ethical restrictions on the use of animals are possible only on the basis of considering their sake. Among the most noted philosophers in the western tradition, St. Thomas Aquinas and Immanuel Kant have acknowledged restrictions on human conduct with regard to the utility and treatment of animals, but these restrictions are, in their stance, ultimately grounded upon the obligation to other human beings, and to animals.

Amalgamating views that can be traced both to the Bible and Aristotle, Aquinas held a hierarchical or means-ends view of the interplay between plants, animals, and humans respectively: There is no sin in using a thing for the purpose of which it is. Now the order of things is such that the imperfect are for the perfect… things, like plants which merely have life, are alike for animals, and all animals for man.

Wherefore, it is not unlawful if men use plants for the good of animals, and animals for the good of man, as the Philosopher states (Politics i. 3) Nevertheless, it does not follow for Aquinas, that one can do anything to an animal. For example, one is still prohibited from killing another person’s ox because this will be an act of injury other’s property, which is an undeniable act of theft or robbery. And there may even be similarly indirect grounds for not harming animals that are no one’s property. Thus, Aquinas explains,

if any passages of Holy Writ seem to forbid us to be cruel to dumb animals, for instance to kill a bird with its young: this is either to remove man’s thoughts from being cruel to other men, and lest through being cruel to animals one become cruel to human beings: or because injury to an animal leads to the temporal hurt of man, either of the doer of the deed, or of another. Kant also held such position insofar as humans obligated to restrain themselves in their dealings with animals due to their obligations to other humans.

Thus, So far as animals are concerned, we have no direct duties. Animals are not self-conscious and are there merely as means to an end. That end is man… our duties towards animals is merely indirect duties towards humanity. Animal nature has analogies to human nature, and by doing our duties to animals in respect to manifestations of human nature, we indirectly do our duty to humanity… If… any acts of animal are analogous to human acts and spring from the same principles. We have duties towards animals because thus we cultivate the same duties towards human beings.

If a man shoot his dog because the animal is no longer capable of service, he does not fail in his duty to the dog, for the dog cannot judge, but his act is inhuman and damages in itself that humanity which it is his duty to show towards mankind. The arguments provided by these philosophers validate the philosophical perspective incorporated in the axiom of indirect obligation. Albeit the fact that we are in a way have obligations to animals, this should not be misconstrued as obligations that humans owed to the animals but rather these obligations are owed to humanity.

Nonetheless, there are significant problems with Aquinas and Kant’s conjectures, at least in their present forms. First, insofar as Aquinas assumes that it is necessary for humans to use animals for food and hence to deprive them of life, his position must be reconsidered in the light of modern knowledge about nutrition. It has been maintained, for example, that a perfectly nutritious diet may require little or no deprivation of animal life and, even if it does, that the average American consumes twice as much animal protein as his/her body can possibly use .

To such an extent, we continue to consume large quantities of animal foodstuff requiring pain and the deprivation of life, then. We do so, not so much to serve vital nutritional demands, but rather to indulge our acquired tastes. Secondly, insofar as Aquinas’ view is based upon hierarchical worldview and presupposes that those lower in the order or less perfect are to serve good of those higher or more perfect, it is open to a serious theoretical objection. Unfortunately, it is not difficult to imagine that a group of beings ? perhaps from another part of the universe ? who are more rational and more perfect than we.

Let say that such beings are impeccable than we are, it seems to follow, if we adopt the principles underlying Aquinas’ stance, that we ought to acquiesce in their using us for whichever of their purposes they fancy we would serve. But do we want to agree with the rightness of this? And if we take Aquinas’ standpoint, would we have any grounds on which to disagree. As for Kant’s view, the main difficulties have to do first with his emphasis on self-consciousness as a condition for being the object of a direct obligation, and second with his assumption that all and only human beings are self-conscious.

I will postpone consideration of the first difficulty until later. For the moment, let me simply develop the second. Even supposing that self-consciousness is a necessary condition for the being the object of direct obligation, it does not follow either that all human beings are the object direct obligations or that no animal can be the object of such obligation. First, advances in the medical knowledge, techniques, and technology have, among other things, preserved and prolonged the lives of a number of human beings who are severely retarded or otherwise mentally impaired due to illness or accident.

In our day, then, if not in Kant’s, one cannot assume that all human beings are self-conscious. Second, some contemporary researchers have suggested that at least some non-human animals have a capacity to become self-conscious that has, until recently, been undetected or ignored by men. Whence, even if we follow Kant and accept self-consciousness as a condition for being the object of direct obligations, it is does not follow that all and only humans satisfy this condition.

Some humans, it may turn out, will not be the objects of direct obligations and some animals will. If animals are not conscious, that is, if they are not sentient and have no capacity for pleasure, pain, or any mental conditions, they may not even be the objects of indirect obligations. Insofar as Aquinas says that it is possible to be “cruel to dumb animals” and Kant says that “he who is cruel to animals becomes hard in dealings with men,” each presupposes that animals, unlike plants and machines, are sentient and are thereby capable of sensation and consciousness.

Thus it is surprising to find Rene Descartes comparing animals to machines. Nevertheless, this is just what he did in Discourse on Method when he compared machines made by the hand of man with human and nonhuman animal bodies made by the hand of God: From this aspect the body is regarded as a machine which, having been made by the hands of God, is incomparably better arranged, and possesses in itself movements which are much more admirable than any of those which can be invented by man.

” Living human bodies were, for Descartes, distinguished from living animal bodies by the presence of an immortal soul which was a prerequisite for mental experiences. Without a soul, a biological body was a natural automaton, “much more splendid”, but in kind no different from machines. For Descartes, the criterion for dichotomizing those living bodies which were ensouled from those which were not was the capacity to use language. The former, he posited, included all and only human beings. ,

there are none so depraved and stupid, without even exempting idiots, that they cannot arrange different words together, forming of them a statement by which they make known their thoughts; while on the other hand, there is no other animal, however perfect and fortunately circumstanced it may be which can do the same. Insofar as Descartes’ position presupposes that all and only human beings have the capacity to use language, it is open to the same sort of criticisms and objections that we raised against Kant.

That is, advancements in medicine are providing more nonlinguistic humans and advances in science are suggesting that at least some nonhuman creatures have more linguistic facility than we previously assumed. Moreover, even the if Descartes were correct on his reasoning that the capacity to use language is uniquely human, why should this, rather than the capacity to feel pain and experience distress, be the principal criterion for determining the nature and extent of ethical restrictions on the expenditure and treatment of animals?

It is this objection which sets the stage for positions which hold that humans have direct obligations to at least some animals. Jeremy Bentham argues that pain and pleasure were what governed behavior and that any ethical system which was founded on anything but maximizing the net balance of pleasure over pain, dealt in “sounds instead of sense, in caprice instead of reason, in darkness instead of light. ” Every action for Bentham was to be assessed in terms of its likelihood of maximizing the net balance of happiness.

But, he noted, if the capacity to experience pleasure and pain was what qualified one to be taken into account in estimating the effects of various courses of action, then nonhuman as well as human animals would have to be taken into account insofar as they, too, had the capacity to experience pleasure and pain. Thus, for Bentham, it is sentience, or capacity for pleasure and pain, that determines whether a being qualifies for mortal consideration. The question now is what grounds we have to consider that animals do suffer from our “cruel” acts.

In response to such question, one holding a utilitarian direct obligation theory must show why individuals believe that animals are conscious. There are number of ways one might go about this. One, one could stress behavioral similarities between men and animals in their respective responses to certain standard pain and pleasure producing stimuli. Comparing the behavior of animals to infants would be valid indication of such similarities. Two, we could stress relevant neuropsychological similarities between humans and animals.

The fundamental insight of indirect obligation theories is their recognition of difference between simple and reflective consciousness. Beings having only simple consciousness can experience pain, have desires, and make choices. But they are not capable of reflecting upon their experiences, desires, and choices and altering their behavior as a result of self-conscious evaluation and deliberation. Beings who can do this I will, following John Locke, label “persons”.

A person, in Locke’s stance, is “A thinking intelligent being that has reason and reflection and can consider itself as itself, the same thinking thing, in different times and places. ” although they are mistaken in believing that the class of human beings, indirect obligation theorists were correct to emphasize the social status of persons. For only persons are capable of tracing the consequences and implications of various courses of action and then deliberating and deciding to embark on one rather than another on grounds other than self-interest.

To do this is part of what it means to have a morality, and it is the capacity for taking the moral pint of view (that is, voluntarily restricting one’s appetite or desire for the sake of others) that gives the person their special worth. The fundamental point of Descartes’ no obligation axiom was to recognize the connection between the development and exercise of language. As Stuart Hampshire has recently pointed out, although people often associate the use of language primarily with communication, “language’s more distinctive and far-reaching power is to bring possibilities before the mind.

Culture has its principal source in the use of the word ‘if’ in counterfactual speculation”. Only language, then, gives us the power to construct complex unrealized possibilities. Therefore, a being cannot be considered a person without the incorporation of language in human psyche. Finally, the fundamental argument of direct obligation principles was to note that one need not be a person to be the object of a moral obligation. Simple consciousness and sentience is sufficient to entitle a being to be considered for its own sake in the ethical deliberations of persons.

If, for example, the capacity to feel pain is sufficient for prima facie obligation not to cause gratuitous pain to persons, why it is not also valid ground for a similar obligation not to cause pain to animals? With regard to the evil of avoidable and unjustifiable pain, the question is, as Bentham emphasized, not “Can they reason nor can they talk? ” but, “can they suffer? ” Putting all of this together, we can say that persons, who are characterized as possessing reflective consciousness, may have a higher status than beings having only simple consciousness.

Their special worth is a function of the extent to which they use language “to bring possibilities before the mind” and then restrain their more trivial desires for the sake of not harming others whom they recognize, from the moral point of view, as their equals in certain respects. Among the beings whose interests must be taken into account for their own sake in the moral deliberations of persons are beings possessing only simple consciousness.

To the extent that persons reluctantly cause pains, suffering, and even death to beings possessing simple consciousness in order to meet important needs, what they do may be justified by appeal to their higher status or greater worth. But, to the extent that persons inflict avoidable pain and suffering on such beings merely to satisfy certain trivial tastes or desires, they pervert their greater capacities. In so doing, they ironically undermine their claim to higher status or worth and thereby weaken any justification they may have had for sacrificing beings having only simple consciousness for important ends.


Aquinas, S. T. (1981). Summa Theologica (F. o. t. E. D. Province, Trans. ): Christian Classics. Bentham, J. (1988). The Principles of Morals and Legislation: Prometheus Books. Descartes, R. (1999). Discourse on Method and Meditations on First Philosophy (Fourth ed. ): Hackett Pub Co Inc. Hampshire, S. (1979). Human Nature. New York Review of Books. Kant, I. (1963). Lectures on Ethics (L. Infield, Trans. ): Harper and Row. Lappe, F. M. (1975). Fantasies and Famine: Harper and Row. Locke, J. (1994). An Essay Concerning Human Understanding Prometheus Books. Velasquez, M. (1985). Ethics Theory and Practice: Prentice-Hall Inc.

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